I was buckling my daughter into her carseat after a birthday party on a mid-November Saturday night when I got the text. It was one that I knew would come someday, but I still wasn’t prepared for it.
“Peeler passed away Thursday … died in his sleep,” it said.
I stared at the glowing phone screen.
“This is too soon,” I thought as I dialed my friend Al Summers, the sender of the text.
My friend, John Peeler, was a significant part of my entry into community journalism, although we hadn’t talked much in recent years. After a career leading several newspapers in Georgia and Alabama, Peeler had retired in Murphy, North Carolina. Despite his failing health, he had taken on the considerable task of raising several of his very young grandchildren.
I knew Peeler’s physical condition was becoming increasingly tenuous, but whenever I asked how he was managing these challenging circumstances, he brushed off my inquiries and asked about my next big plan — “What about you, Liz?”
Al picked up when I called and told me what he knew. Peeler apparently died peacefully but unexpectedly during treatments for an ongoing health condition. Al said he cuddled with his young granddaughter and then fell asleep but didn’t wake up. Peeler had a trusted companion in the house at the time, and she contacted Al, who had texted me.
Peeler and I met in the now defunct Good News Cafe in Ellijay, Ga. I was a rising college junior working my way through a sweltering, slow-turning summer in the Appalachian foothills. I had recently decided to pursue a minor in journalism, but I didn’t have a plan for that murky, seemingly far-away destination called “after graduation.”
Peeler skidded into my life on two wheels with his three-pot-a-day coffee habit. He’d turn up in the cafe four or five times each day demanding a large, black coffee “with just a little bit of ice” so he could begin chugging it immediately. I soon gathered that he was the sports editor at the Times-Courier across the street, a longstanding weekly, which was still family owned at the time.
Despite the rapid-fire beverage demands and the constant criticism of my pouring techniques, it was impossible not to like Peeler and to get a darn good laugh out of his antics pretty regularly. He was constantly on the go, filling five or six pages with completely local sports coverage every week — that’s a lot of sports writing for a weekly in case you didn’t know. Like a lot of sports editors I’ve run across, he shot all his own photos, did his own photo editing and laid out his own pages (he called it “paginating” — a term that has since gone out of style). And he did all this running on nothing but caffeine, chocolate and cigarettes.
If not for Peeler, I would never have known about the Times-Courier’s Georgia Press Association internship, which would be available the next summer. He learned of my minor and insisted I apply for the position. The Times-Courier’s then-publisher, George Bunch III, arranged to hire me for six weeks using GPA internship funds, and the next summer we were off to the races. And what a race it was. Al and Peeler — we always called him by his last name — declared themselves my mentors. They sent me around Gilmer County on features assignments mostly, and I got the beginnings of the civics lesson that is community news work.
After I graduated, the Times-Courier hired me full time, and that’s when I really got to know Peeler. He taught me to lay out pages and would have me bring him a printed out version of my work so he could mark it up. The pages would come back drenched in red ink, much to my frustration and to Peeler’s apparent delight. Thanks to his tireless critiques, I finally grasped block formatting, and they were the only reason I was able to keep up with the enormous amount of layout work when I became editor of The Catoosa News a couple of years later.
I learned to give as good as I got when it came to Peeler and Al. There was constant good-natured ribbing, but they became my forever friends in the time it took to close the newspaper doors at 5 p.m. on a Tuesday and actually kick a paper out to press at 2 a.m. the next morning. There were many general philosophical musings, and Peeler’s love life at the time was always a lively (and often out-of-control) topic.
When I got Al’s text, it had been about a year since I last spoke with Peeler. The crazy thing is that I had texted him randomly on the Thursday morning he passed away.
“You’ve been on my mind. How are you?” I’d asked. There was never a reply.
Now, I know why, Peeler. Rest in peace.